Delhi's Qutub Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world and one of the most popular monuments in India. Its rather dizzying height of 238 feet (72.5 meters) could be the size of a modern 20 story high-rise residential building! The monument's stark, soaring appearance evokes a sense of mystery, as do the extensive Hindu and Muslim ruins around it. The ruins reflect the violent end of Hindu reign in Delhi in the late 12th century and takeover by the Muslims. In recognition of its historical importance, the Qutub Minar complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Find out more about it and how to visit it in this guide.
It's widely stated that Qutab-Ud-Din-Aibak, the first Islamic ruler of north India and founder of the Delhi Sultanate, commissioned the Qutub Minar when he came to power in the early 13th century. However, the monument's true origin and purpose have been the subject of much controversy among historians. This stems from the fact that the site where it's situated previously belonged to Hindu Rajput rulers. Raja Anangpal I of the Tomar dynasty established the fortified city of Lal Kot there in the 8th century.
It's regarded as the first surviving city of Delhi.
Numerous Hindu and Jain temples originally covered the place where the Qutub Minar stands. Early Muslim rulers partially destroyed them and converted them into Islamic structures, using materials from the razed temples in their mosques and other buildings. As a result, the structures (including the Qutub Minar), curiously have carvings of sacred Hindu motifs or gods on them. This has created ongoing debate as to whether Hindus or Muslims actually built the Qutub Minar. And, if Muslims did, who exactly?
According to common belief, the Qutub Minar was either a victory tower to mark the start of Muslim rule in India, or an Islamic minaret for muezzins to call the faithful to prayer at the mosque. Yet, researchers have multiple issues with these theories. They argue that the monument lacks appropriate inscriptions, it's too tall to have been built for call to prayer (the muezzin wouldn't be able to climb the 379 narrow spiral stairs to the top five times a day and his voice wouldn't be heard at the bottom), and its entrance faces the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, the Qutub Minar's design looks undeniably like some minarets in other countries—particularly the Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in western Afghanistan that dates back to the early 12th century.
In 1964, one researcher (Professor M.S. Bhatnagar of Ghaziabad) went to the effort of hiring a helicopter to do an aerial survey of the Qutub Minar to validate his theory that it was originally a Hindu structure. Among other things, he claimed that the projecting edges of the tower looked like a 24-petaled lotus flower, with each "petal" accounting for one hour. Ultimately, he concluded the monument had been the central observation tower of a Vedic astronomical observatory. Some other researchers support this idea.
The Persian inscription on the eastern entrance of Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, next to the Qutub Minar, also adds to the mystery. Historians associate the inscription with Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, and it records that the mosque was built with materials from demolished Hindu temples. However, there's no mention anywhere of the Qutub Minar's construction. Apparently, it's also not mentioned in the first official story of the Delhi Sultanate, Tajul Maasir, written in Persian by historian Sadruddin Hasan Nizami.
He began compiling this important work at the time Qutb-ud-Din Aibak came to power. It focuses on his brief four-year reign and early reign of successor Shams ud-Din Iltutmish (also known as Sultan Altamash), up until 1228.
Consequently, some historians think the inscription really belongs to Iltutmish, along with the construction of the Qutub Minar.
Whether the Muslims built the Qutub Minar from scratch or converted it from an existing Hindu structure, it's certainly undergone various alterations over the years. Inscriptions on the monument indicate that it was struck by lightning twice in the 14th century! After its top floor was damaged in 1368, Sultan Firoz Shah carried out restoration and expansion works and installed an Indo-Islamic cupola on it. Sikandar Lodi undertook further works on the upper floors during his reign in 1505. Then, in 1803, a severe earthquake destroyed the cupola.
Major Robert Smith of the British Indian Army carried out necessary repairs, completing them in 1828. He ambitiously replaced the cupola with a Bengali-style Hindu chhatri (elevated domed pavilion), which was an architectural disaster. It was taken down in 1848 and placed to the east of the monument, where it's called Smith's Folly.
The Qutub Minar is located in Mehrauli, in South Delhi. This neighborhood is about 40 minutes south of the Connaught Place city center. The closest Metro train station is Qutub Minar on the Yellow Line. It's about 20 minutes walk from there to the monument. The distance can be covered on foot during the cooler winter months. In summer, you'll want to take an auto rickshaw (about 50 rupees), bus (5 rupees) or taxi though.
How to Visit Qutub Minar
The Qutub Minar complex is open daily from sunrise until sunset. The best months to visit are between November and March, while it's cool and dry, with February being ideal. The complex does get crowded during the day, and especially on weekends. Hence, those who arrive early in the morning will not only get rewarded with the monument being illuminated sun's first rays but also relative peace.
Ticket prices increased in August 2018 and a discount is provided on cashless payment. Cash tickets now cost 40 rupees for Indians, or 35 rupees cashless. Foreigners pay 600 rupees cash, or 550 rupees cashless. Children under 15 years of age can enter for free. The ticket counter is situated across the road from the complex's entrance. Indians may have to wait up to an hour to be served during busy times. To avoid this, it's possible to buy tickets online. Fortunately, there's a separate line dedicated counter for foreigners, which reduces waiting time.
You'll find toilets, parking and a baggage counter near the ticket counter. Do note that food isn't allowed inside the Qutub Minar complex.
Authorized tourist guides can be hired at the complex but they narrate varied and often concocted tales. Many visitors choose to rent inexpensive audio guides instead and explore at leisure. Alternatively, a handy free audio guide app is available for download. Boards with information, including a map, are also strategically placed at key sites throughout the complex. If you're interested in history, allow a couple of hours to see everything. Unlike many tourist attractions in India, the complex is refreshingly well-maintained.
Do be aware that security guards may approach you and offer to take your photo. They will expect payment for doing so (100 rupees) but they know places for some great shots that you probably won't have thought of.
If you'd like to visit the Qutub Minar as part of a tour, there are a few options. Delhi's Hop On Hop Off Sightseeing Bus service stops at the monument. Delhi Tourism also operates cheaper full and half day sightseeing tours. The monument is included on both.
Delhi Heritage Walks conducts guided walking tours of the Qutub Minar complex on certain days of the month, as well as on a bespoke basis. INTACH runs heritage walks on weekends at different areas of Delhi, including Qutub Minar, on a rotational basis. Also check out these custom walking tours offered by Delhi Walks and Wandertrails.
What to See
The Qutub Minar is part of a larger complex incorporating several other related historical monuments, including a collection of tombs. The most significant of these is Quwwat-ul-Islam (the Might of Islam) mosque, which is considered to be the first extant mosque in India. Even though it's in ruins, its architecture is still magnificent, especially the Alai Darwaza (formal entrance).
The Iron Pillar is another baffling monument in the complex. Despite historians and archeologists intensively studying it, no one really knows why it's there. Scholars have determined that it was constructed during the early period of Gupta reign between the 4th and 5th centuries, based on an inscription on it. It's thought to have been made for a king in honor of Hindu god Lord Vishnu and originally located at Vishnupadagiri (modern-day Udaygiri) in Madhya Pradesh, where it may have been used as a sundial.
Vishnupadagiri is on the Tropic of Cancer and was a center of astronomical studies during the Gupta period. What's particularly unusual about the pillar is that it hasn't rusted, due to the unique iron-making process of the ancient Indians.
The tombs in the complex are those of Shams ud-Din Iltutmish (who died in 1236), Ala-ud-din Khilji (regarded as the most powerful ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, who died in 1316), and Imam Zamin (an Islamic priest from Turkestan who died in 1539). The remains of a madrasa (and Islamic college) belonging to Ala-ud-din Khilji can also be seen.
The other notable monument is the unfinished Alai Minar. Ala-ud-din Khilji started building it to be a tower twice the height of the Qutub MInar. However, works came to a halt after his death.
Unfortunately, it's no longer possible to climb up to the top of the Qutub Minar. The monument was closed after a lighting failure resulted in a stampede, killing nearly 50 people, in 1981.
What to Do Nearby
Mehrauli is away from Delhi's other popular tourist attractions but there's plenty worth doing to fill in a whole day there. The neighborhood is dotted with an array of relics from Delhi's oldest city and the many dynasties that ruled it. Many of them can be found within Mehrauli Archeological Park, next the Qutub Minar complex. It contains the remains palaces, mosques, tombs (one of which was converted to a residence by a British official), and step wells. It's open daily from sunrise until sunset, and there's no entrance fee.
The degenerated remnants of Lal Kot lie inside Sanjay Van, a thick forest bordering the Qutub Minar complex, starting from Adham Khan’s tomb. The forest is best explored by those who like trekking. It has multiple entry points, with Gate 5 near the complex being preferred.
Still haven't had enough history? Take a trip to Tughlakabad Fort, about 20 minutes east of Qutub Minar. It dates back to the 14th century.
The 20-acre Garden of Five Senses, 10 minutes drive from Qutub Minar, is popular with nature-lovers. Its manicured grounds are decorated with sculptures.
For an offbeat experience, head to hipster hangout Champa Gali. This up-and-coming street is lined with cafes, design studios, and boutiques. It's in Saidulajab, an urban village close to the Qutub Minar complex and Garden of Five Senses.
Hauz Khas urban village is a cool Delhi neighborhood about 15 minutes north of Mehrauli. It's one of the city's best food and beverage destinations. Plus, there are yet more ancient ruins and a deer park that's fun for kids.
Finally, those who are interested in Indian handicrafts must visit Dastkar Nature Bazaar, about 10 minutes south of Mehrauli in Chattarpur. It's one of the top places to buy handicrafts in India because the products aren't the usual run-of-the-mill items. There are new themes and artisans every month (see calendar of events), in addition to permanent stalls. Do note that it's closed on Wednesdays.